20th August, 2016
This year the National Youth Music Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary. Shining the spotlight on emerging young actors, they certainly showcase their talent in this full-on production of Sater and Sheik’s musical adaptation of Wedekind’s seminal drama of revolutionary spirit and sexual awakening. However, director Nikolai Foster’s aesthetic does a slight disservice to both the head and heart of Spring Awakening.
Foster transports the musical from its original late-19th century setting to 1980’s Berlin; the graffiti-obscured concrete behemoth looms to the back of the stage. In attempting to emulate the premise of a changing society within the suffocating atmosphere of fin de siècle culture, the intent is clear, aiming to compound the themes of sexual repression with the oppression and liberation surrounding the divided Germany of the 20th Century.
However, in modernising the set and costumes, Foster and designer, Takis, diminish the power of the deliberately anachronistic music within the constraints of a decaying period in time which was successfully exploited in the original production. The tension between the outer straight-laced school environment and the, by turns, angsty and dreamy inner feelings of the teenage protagonists relies on the incongruity of both temporal and spatial setting and the folk/rock musical genre.
This was matched in the original productions’ memorable image of the immaculately uniformed schoolboys whose inner revolutionary identities were reflected in their Eraserhead-esque punk hair styles. Here the day-glo 80’s garb doesn’t have the same striking effect – the costumes are an eyesore, but not rebelliously so, they are merely a reminder of the decade fashion forgot – nylon and cheese aplenty.
Because of this misstep, Foster manages to both overegg the contemporary thematic relevance – the subtlety of Sater’s lyrics convey (still) deeply resonant issues while maintaining a surface of melodic beauty – while sacrificing the theatrical aesthetic of personal, spiritual and stately antithesis that Spring Awakening lends itself to. I got the impression that Foster was trying to do something different just for the sake of it. And different is by no means a bad thing, but it needs to be better supported by interpretive insight.
Despite these criticisms, there is a lot to be praised in this production. The NYMT cast work their socks off and exude talent by the bucket load. Passionate, moving and ecstatic with energy, the entire ensemble shines. The volume of the company adds undeniable oomph to the musical numbers - the room literally jumps during the thumping Totally Fucked, and the harmonious Song Of Purple Summer is elevated to an exuberantly rousing finale.
There are some lovely moments of staging, namely the ethereal Mirror Blue Night, and confetti strewn Melchior (Nathanael Landskroner) and Wendla (Claire O’Leary) gracefully floating above the stage, supported by the ensemble, to the choral quasi-spiritual sexuality of I Believe. Moritz’s death scene similarly demonstrates a masterstroke of direction. Toby Turpin’s sense of despair is gut-wrenching as the silence and darkness close in around him and he progresses ever deeper into his waiting grave. Although the boxing ring interpretation of Don’t Do Sadness seems a tad overwrought, the frenetic action a distraction from what should be a poignant moment of introspection. Here, And Then There Were None proves to be a stronger episode in Moritz’s character progression.
As Hanschen, Stuart Thompson’s characterisation is less the vain manipulator one often thinks of, he is more sensitive and vulnerable, with an air of burgeoning confidence found in self-aware and intelligent young men. Consequently, his scene with Ernst (Oscar Morgan) and their reprise of The Word Of Your Body is a highlight of the evening, a simple and touching moment as the two boys hesitantly unfold themselves before one another.
Professional, dedicated and naturally charismatic, these actors are definitely ones to watch out for in the future, and due to the sheer exuberance of the cast and beauty of Sheik’s music, Spring Awakening is a very enjoyable evening of theatre.
One final note – it has been noted numerous times, but Curve really need to fix their sound mixing. Projection, acoustics, microphone levels – whatever it is requires some attention. The ensemble numbers were fine in Spring Awakening, but the sound became an issue during solos, especially when the lead actor cannot be heard fully over the loudness of the band.